ain & Gain is a film about idiots, played straight. And that’s it’s genius. Every dumbass line, every ridiculous course of action, every severed toe, is played with complete and utter conviction from the leading trio. It helps that two of those are Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, arguably two of the finest deadpan-idiot actors working today.
The film is a basic crime caper, though Michael Bay often treats it at seriously as a drama. Three body builders, Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg), Paul Doyle (Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), decide to treat the American Dream in the same way they train at the gym. Cheating via steroids.
They kidnap and extort one of Lugo’s clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), and take him for all he’s worth. It’s then that the film really gets going, with the consequences of their actions and the consequences on their character.
All three – and even their unlikable victime, Kershaw – are tremendously well drawn. Lugo is an egomaniac, his mind full of self-help seminars and protein shakes. He is, for lack of a better term, the gang’s ‘brains’.
Doyle is the reluctant muscle. A born-again Christian in prison, he doesn’t drink, do drugs or hurt people. Yet he harbours a demon-in-waiting for each. Johnson plays his internal struggles with near comedic perfection.
Doorbal is the least fleshed-out, but he brings with him a girlfriend, Robin (Rebel Wilson). Her presence makes his inclusion worth it.
Bay uses an interesting technique to incorporate all these characters. Each one narrates their actions, and regales their backstories, as if they’re all starring in their own personal films. Which makes sense. In their self-absorbed minds, that’s presumably exactly how they see their life.
At first, this director’s trick plays like one long montage. It’s a bit relentless, as though you’re waiting for the film to actually start. But once you acclimatise to it, the overflowing narrations from different characters becomes something quite unique.
Camera aesthetics are ramped up to 11. Bay uses a 90s-grain, fixed-camera that recurs throughout the film, and he’s fond of the super-slow-mo that’s usually the preserve of sports replays on Sky Sports HD. There’s one shot in particular that takes Bay’s revolving camera to the extreme, circling round the action in two rooms. Sidestepping the usual parallel editing/cross cutting escalates the emotional intensity of the scene.
And the film is emotional. Although arguably a comedy, Pain and Gain is mostly dramatic pathos. There are many brief, but effective, heart string tugs. Like when Doyle is asked to kill his friend. Or when Lugo is called dumb. Steve Jablonsky’s score underpins this all, plucking a lonely guitar with all the melancholy of an empty warehouse.
‘Style for style’s sake’ is an argument thrown at Bay a lot, and often for good reason. In this case, however, the hyper-reality he creates meshes with the characters and story perfectly. They’re on steroids most of the time, cocaine the rest. A kinetic, ever-soundtracked world makes sense from their perception. The aforementioned multiple voiceovers run into each other exactly like how a room full of cocaine-fulled people would vie for attention. The surface sheen is a mirror of the American Dream into which they vacuously buy. It’s a masterstroke disguised as something dumb.